Trinidadians of East Indian descent are better off than their indentured ancestors by every important measure: physiologically, intellectually, and even psychologically. But it is the first measure which affects all the other outcomes.
In respect to physical capacity, the indentured labourers who came to Trinidad in the late 19th and early 20th centuries worked long hours of hard labour. They usually came here on five-year contracts, and had to work nine hours every day except Sundays and public holidays. Because the death rate among indentured labourers in 1865 was a high 12 per cent, the British government launched an investigation and found that malnutrition was a key cause. A law was passed for planters to provide daily rations for the first year of indentureship to all immigrants, and the mortality rate fell to two per cent.
Trinidad and Tobago commemorated Indian Arrival Day last Wednesday.
According to the 1931 census, life expectancy at birth for the Trinidadian population was 50 years, with less than half the population living to see their 60th birthday. Up to the 1950s, the major causes of death in Trinidad were tuberculosis, followed by pneumonia, and "enteric fever" (typhoid). Malaria and dysentery were also common. Nowadays, the three leading causes of death in Trinidad and Tobago are heart attacks, diabetes, and cancer—all lifestyle diseases linked to poor diet, lack of exercise, smoking tobacco, and drinking. Despite this, it is accurate to say that Indo-Trinidadians today are physiologically superior to their ancestors.
A key indicator of this is height. According to records from the National Archives, the mean height for indentured labourers in 1922 was around five feet (152 cms). These ledgers in the Register of Immigrants Returning to India show that the heights of Indians ranged between 4'8" (142 cms) and 5'8" (173 cms). The men's modal height was 5'2" (157 cms), which is below the average height of adult Indo females today. (Data were only available for the 25 per cent of Indians who went back to India after their contract expired.)
"Stature is determined by both childhood nutrition and the incidence of childhood illness," writes Gregory Clark, a quantitative economics historian, in his book A Farewell to Alms. "Within societies, the positive correlation between health and height is well documented...The most obvious effect of better living standards is to make people taller." Table 1 shows the average heights of different populations in the 19th century.
Significantly, the average heights of Indians from southern India in the late 20th century has not changed since the 1840s—they are still about 5' 4" (163 cms). Historian Dr Radica Mahase, whose research area is indentureship, notes that during the indentureship period the number of Indian emigrants increased according to the famines and droughts being experienced in the sub-continent. "The main reason they came was economic," she told the Sunday Express. "A minority became indentured labourers because of caste or religious discrimination. But for most of them, it was a rational economic decision." Only a few were tricked into coming, and those were mostly women because the recruiters were paid more for women labourers.
It also appears as though the persons who chose to come to the Caribbean as indentured labourers were even shorter than the average in India in the mid-19th century. This may indicate that such individuals were from the poorest of the poor classes in India, and possibly that they chose to return because, being shorter, they were unable to withstand the hard labour of the sugar-cane fields. It is therefore possible that the 75 per cent of indentured Indians who stayed in Trinidad were taller by about six centimetres (2.3 inches) than those who left.
Mahase says that many labourers were unable to return because they couldn't afford the return passage to India, and because the British government didn't have enough ships for all the labourers who wanted to go back. As late as the 1930s, she says, Indians in Trinidad were writing their relatives in India asking them to pay for them to go back home. "But I think the majority stayed by choice," says Mahase.
Although existing historical documents don't allow precise calculations, she estimates that between 50 to 60 per cent of indentured labourers chose to stay. Four per cent, she notes, got free land under a Commutation Grant, and others had the opportunity to buy land, which would not have been possible in India. Historian Dennison Moore, in his book Racial Ideology in Trinidad, also records an average of 400 indentured labourers making remittances totalling £2,000 a year, and an average of 1,500 Indians per year holding about £28 in savings in Trinidad banks.
So was staying a good decision? Mahase says, "If you go today to the regions where the indentured labourers came from, like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, you would see very intense poverty, whereas in Trinidad we have come out of that. And the opportunities for upward mobility, economic and social, are much greater here."
Table 2 compares India and T&T on key indicators, but the T&T measures do not refer to Indo-Trinidadians alone. Overall, T&T scores higher on the HDI than India, but infant mortality and life expectancy are about the same in both countries. A significant disparity is the literacy rate, and up to the 1940s in T&T, 50 per cent of Indians were illiterate, as compared to 22 per cent of the general population. A 1983 study which administered intelligence tests to children of Indian and African descent, however, found no difference in mental abilities. Additionally, nearly two-thirds of national scholarship winners in the past decade have been Indo.
A survey carried out in 1999 in T&T found that, compared to Afro-Trinidadians, the "Indo-Trinidadian group were lighter at birth, mothers in that group were younger at child's birth, had lower body mass index (BMI), lower education level, were less likely to be in paid employment and the household had a higher overcrowding level." Titled "Social inequalities and children's height in Trinidad and Tobago", the study found that "Short stature was more frequent in children who were Indo-Trinidadian, had parents of short stature, had low birth-weights, or were from families with a large number of children."
The authors concluded that "The impact of socio-economic factors on height is marginal in Trinidad and Tobago." In other words, living standards are good enough so that more personal factors, such as pre-natal care or diet or ethnic ancestry, affect a person's height.
As for psychological progress, in A Turn in the South, VS Naipaul, who was born in 1932, writes: "In the Indian countryside of my childhood in Trinidad there were many murders and acts of violence, and these acts gave the Trinidad Indians, already separated from the rest of the island by language, religion, and culture, a fearful reputation."
Nowadays, black urban youth are seen as the main purveyors of murderous violence, and Indos comprise less than 30 per cent of prison inmates. About half of all Indos are married and, while this rate is lower than in past decades, the decline is partly linked to greater autonomy on the part of Indo women. In India, by contrast, only 48 per cent of females are literate as compared to 73 per cent of males. Also, Indo females in T&T are 12 times more likely to be born and to survive to adulthood. This is largely due to sex-selective abortion in India.
Observational estimates by this writer gives an average height of five feet, eight inches (173 cms) for Indo-Trinidadian males below 30 years of age in the Central region.
According to economists Roderick Floud and Robert W Fogel authors in The Changing Body, "the health and nutrition of one generation contributes, through mothers and through infant and childhood experience, to the strength, health, and longevity of the next generation." Along with Bernard Harris and Sok Chul Hong, they present evidence linking increased stature with higher intelligence, greater longevity, more productivity, and higher earnings.
It is these factors, rooted in four to eight inches of additional height within the past three generations, which prove the benefits gained by Indians' arrival to these shores.